Friday, December 9, 2011

Flipping Switches

When did we all get to be so nice? -- so unbelievably nice?

I'm teaching a composition class right now; it is a cross-disciplinary class that I team teach with a history teacher. We explore global issues and then use the good-old Aristotelian modes to discuss and write about them. We have a great bunch of kids -- about sixty of them. They are all high school seniors, of varied academic levels, from advanced to standard college prep.

For their last paper, we explored the issue of genocide and assigned a paper in which they were to question what would cause an individual to decide to participate in such atrocities. After we showed them the extremely moving film Hotel Rwanda, the history teacher introduced them to an experiment performed by Stanley Milgram. In short, Milgram wanted to explore the factors that would have affected Nazis who participated in the atrocities of the Holocaust.

What Milgram did was to create an experiment that was not what it seemed on the surface. He advertised for people to participate -- he would pay them four dollars. The volunteers were directed to a panel with switches. The switches were marked with voltages. What the volunteers were supposed to do was to ask a person, in another room, questions. The other person was to be shocked if he didn't give the proper response, in increasing levels of electricity.

What the volunteers did not know, was that the researchers and the people hooked up to the electrodes were actually actors. no one was being hurt, for real, but the volunteers -- the ones flipping the switches -- did not know that. As far as the volunteers knew, they were really shocking the person in the other room.

This, of course, allowed Milgram to study how far the volunteers would be willing to go. In doing this, he was approximating the conditions of a genocidal incident, in many ways. Here's a video. Pretty fascinating stuff:

Well, what I did was to ask my students -- after they had seen this -- to respond on a blog page on my website for teaching. To make things succinct, I asked them what they thought of the people who did the switch-flipping.

To my surprise, out of that big class, only one student tore into the switch-flippers. Everyone else made attempts to explain (with a strong current of empathy) what caused these people to keep flipping switches, even after they were sure that they were hurting people.

I had to take some time to process this. My first reaction was jaw-dropping disbelief: Could these smart, Catholic school kids really be willing to accept this kind of behavior? Was this an indication that they might also be sucked-in to atrocities, like the people in Nazi Germany or Rwanda? Had they been conditioned so well toward kindness, they they were unwilling to even to condemn the actions of torturers?

Soon, however, it occurred to me -- especially as I looked back at the kids' responses -- that these answers came mostly out of fear. So many of them used phrases like "if most of us were in this situation . . ." They felt the weight of authority, these generally good-hearted young people. They were afraid. They feared one thing, in particular: If they were ever put to a test like this, how would the world judge them?

Maybe they were, subconsciously, trying to store up some good karma. Just in case.

If you are the praying kind, pray for the strength of young people, everywhere. And don't judge them -- not yet. We need them to be stronger than any of us have been in the past.

[Thanks to Mr. Bill Hocker for introducing the kids -- and me -- to Milgram's work.]


  1. Optimistic View:
    In a lesson on empathy, they empathized.

    Pessimist View:
    They identified with the lever pullers.

    The Milgram Experiment, and years later the Stanford Prison experiment are classic tests of human nature. The fascinating part of Milgram and Stanford come out if you break out the results by Kohlberg's Stages of Morality (based on Piaget's Stages of Learning).

    The fascinating part is those who reached the highest levels of the Stages of Morality did not continue to press the button once they believed someone was being harmed. Interesting stuff

  2. Joe -- succinctly put, indeed. I will have to look more into the Stanford Prison experiment. I suppose it shoudln't be a surprise about the Kohlberg/Piaget issue, and, given the percentages of those who climb high on the Piaget ladder, it's not too encouraging when one considers the possible outcomes in situations like Rwanda.

    (Thanks, too, for the reminder, that I spelled Milgram wrong -- which, for some reason, I always do. Think I fixed them all.)

  3. Do you remember the song "We Do What We're Told" on Peter Gabriel's album "So"? Interestingly (to me, at least), it's about the Milgram experiment.

    I find your students' response refreshingly honest. We all want to believe we'd be the superhero who tackles the mugger or hides Anne Frank from the Nazis, but maybe the first step toward becoming that person is realizing how rare that bravery is, always and everywhere, and trying to figure out (if it's even possible) what qualities and conditions inculcate that bravery.

  4. Jeff -- that is really cool. That was one of my favorite albums at the time. I'll have to revisit the song.

    I guess the interesting thing about this study is the question it raises about bravery, as you say. What's so hard about saying: "No, I won't fry another human being"? It seems a far cry from hiding Anne Frank. But you're right: it is all in the definition of bravery. Whatever the case, it sure points to the strength of human tides . . .